Stories behind the names

the faraway origins of some local plants’ English and scientific names

‘Twas the last day of July, and the big meadow at Eagle Beach State Rec Area was decorated with white flowers. Tall, flat-topped inflorescences of cow parsnip ringed the edge by the trees. Shorter and lacier inflorescences of hemlock-parsley came next and filled an area near the old dunes. On slightly lower, more central ground, the single flowers of northern grass-of-Parnassus spangled the field. And weedy little yarrow fit itself in wherever it could.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

This grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia palustris), also known as bog star, has a wide geographic range across North America and Eurasia. Inside the saucer-shaped flower are five stamens bearing pollen, five staminodes (sterile stamens) that bear droplets on their branched tips, and a single ovary with a stigma where pollen is deposited. The droplets do not contain nectar but may help attract small flies and bees that do the pollination. Nectar is produced at the bases of the stamens and staminodes, according to a scholarly report (resolving the contradictions and confusions found on general internet sources). Insect visitations, moving pollen within a flower or bringing it from another one, are reported to be necessary for pollination and seed set. Seeds are spread by wind and water.

The taxonomy of Parnassia is confusing too. Our field guides place the genus in the family Saxifragaceae. However, several internet sources place it either in its own family or in the family Celastraceae (along with burning bush, Oriental bittersweet, and others).

I was interested to learn how this plant got its English name. It’s not a grass, so that is a misnomer. But what does Parnassus have to do with this plant?– the name appears in both the common and the scientific names.

Mount Parnassus is a fairly large mountain in Greece, not as big as Olympus and not as important in mythology. Nevertheless, in ancient Greek mythology, Parnassus was sacred to Dionysus, the god of grape harvest, wine, debauchery, and madness. The mountain was also a sacred haunt of Apollo, who was a multifaceted god of light, music, town-building, and prophesy—and a hero, a protector of flocks and crops, a lecher, a bisexual, and an archer. Parnassus was also visited by the Muses—goddesses of song, poetry, history, and dance, as well as other minor deities.

Then, about two thousand years ago, a Greek physician and botanist named Dioscorides wrote a huge set of books on medicine, useful plants, and related matters. He wrote in Greek; his books were translated into Latin and Arabic and, eventually, into other languages. They constituted the basis of the practice of western medicine for centuries. Supposedly, Dioscorides gave grass-of-Parnassus its name, having found it growing on the Mountain. I have no access to this doctor’s original opus, but it seems unlikely that he really confused this plant with the grasses; perhaps he merely said it was like a grass in some way. Then, somewhere along the line, some taxonomist just decided to apply the inappropriate name of grass when naming this species.

The generic names of two of the other white flowers in the meadow also hark back to Greek mythology. Heracleum lanatum (cow parsnip) refers to Heraclites (Hercules, in Latin)—known for his prodigious strength. As penance for his crime of murdering his wife and children in a fit of madness, he was given the fabled twelve Labors of Hercules (killing or capturing some monsters, cleaning the Augean stables that were full of manure, etc.). The very robust plants of cow parsnip might reflect his strength.

Achillea millefolium (yarrow) is related in name to Achilles—he of the vulnerable heel. Legends say that Achilles’ mother held her baby by a heel and dipped him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable, but the heel didn’t get wet, leaving it unprotected. After many adventures, including killing Hector in the Trojan war, Achilles was killed by an arrow in this heel. Yarrow indeed has good medicinal properties, but the tales telling that Achilles used this herb to heal wounds may be apocryphal.

Before I leave Greek mythology, here are two more quick examples; both are orchids with representatives in Southeast. The genus Cypripedium (moccasin flower or lady’s slipper) is named for the foot of Kypris (later known as Aphrodite in Greek, Venus in Latin; the ‘ped’ refers to foot in Latin). In variable forms, she was the goddess of love and lust, beauty, fertility, and marriage. Calypso bulbosa (fairy slipper) is a showy orchid. The ‘bulbosa’ part of the plant’s name refers to a bulbous corm at the base of the plant. In Homer’s epic poem, Calypso was a goddess-nymph who successfully seduced Ulysses (Odysseus in Greek) for seven years. Perhaps she was really bulbous when bearing two children by him!

And how do all these mythical creatures get into taxonomy at all? Well, one reason is that, historically, all young scholars, including future taxonomists, were well schooled in Greek and Latin classics, so the names and stories were very familiar to them.


Benjamin and North Islands, part 2 of 2

profitable prowlings

One of the special treats of our little excursion to Benjamin and North islands was finding ourselves comfortable in shirtsleeves—no jacket needed, even when crawling out of our tents at six in the morning. How often is it that warm in Juneau!?

In addition to enjoying the marine wildlife, we wandered around on both islands, just exploring. We saw one young deer, with a beautiful summer coat of red, and lots of deer sign. Deer had cropped the leaves of false lily of the valley, occasional stems of twisted stalk, and most of the leaves from sapling crabapple trees. A little stand of skunk cabbage had been reduced to ragged nubbins. Fresh water seems to be in short supply, particularly on North Island, so we wondered how deer would get enough water.

We also found skeletal evidence of four long-dead deer, some apparently quite young, leading us to speculate about hard winters in these sites. Two lower jaw bones caused us to query ADFG when we returned. One of the mandibles we found had four cheek (grinding) teeth in place plus a fifth one just erupting at the back of the jaw. A mature deer lower jaw holds six cheek teeth (three premolars and three molars), and the full set is in place at an age of about two and a half years. The jaw with the just-erupting fifth cheek tooth had belonged to a young deer, perhaps nine to twelve months old, according to ADFG.

The ground, in some places, was riddled with small holes, just the right size for a red squirrel, but we saw no evidence of current squirrel activity: No busy little fussbudgets chattering at us, no middens of stripped spruce cones, and many of the holes had spider webs across the opening. This year, there are huge numbers of spruce cones still on the trees, so food supply for squirrels should be quite decent. We wondered, then, if there had been squirrels here in the past, but perhaps a year or two of poor cone crops had wiped them out.

Among the rocks on the uplifted beach meadows we startled several good-sized voles, which scooted quickly into handy crevices. How did they get to these islands? They can certainly swim well, but it’s a long distance, for a vole, from the mainland to the islands.

As we stood quietly in a beach meadow with a dense population of lupines, we heard tiny tapping sounds and soon discovered the source: Mature lupine pods were explosively twisting open in the hot sun and the dispersing seeds clattered softly down through the surrounding vegetation. At the upper beach fringe, a stand of cow parsnip presented heads of closely packed clusters of maturing seeds. We were fascinated to observe that each little cluster of seeds resembled a rose, carved in wood. So the whole head was, so to speak, a bouquet of wooden roses. Beautiful!

Some very sturdy, squat plants lined the top of one beach, and bore yellow daisy-like blooms. These beach grounsels, with large, spreading leaves, are very specific to this particular habitat type. Each yellow ‘flower’ is really an inflorescence composed of a ring of showy flowers around a disc of many, small, not-showy flowers, altogether forming the daisy-like composite inflorescence. We noticed that ants were visiting the central flowers, presumably sipping nectar. What an odd place to find ants, which don’t seem to be common in Southeast.

On the forest floor were numerous evidences of predation: Three piles of crow feathers (and feet), plus a regurgitated pellet with an intact crow foot. Four piles of gull feathers. Scattered plates of chitons. Sea urchin tests (a.k.a. shells). Some clam shells and small crab legs. Eagles and otters, and perhaps others, had found their dinners.

Other sightings:

  • A row of extremely contorted spruces on a raised terrace well inside the present forest edge. What could be their history?
  • A dogwood bush, normally shrub-sized, but in this instance sending a long branch or two far up along a spruce trunk, almost like a vine. Apparently its only chance to reach the light was to straggle upward, because the dense thicket of young spruce at the forest edge effectively blocked light from shrub-level.
  • An orchid with vanishingly small flowers (with the regrettable name of adder’s mouth), presumably pollinated by insects as tiny as no-see-ums. Could those miserable pests actually have a use?
  • Several specimens of slime mold, growing on fallen logs. One kind was white and spongy, the other was yellow and fuzzy-looking. Spending most of their lives as separate cells in the forest floor, upon some unknown signal the cells come together to form the visible mold, and reproduce.
  • A family of Pacific/winter wrens in a heap of wind-thrown trees, the young ones curious, the parents wary.

From our perspective, our prowlings were profitable. These little explorations are like treasure hunts in which the treasure is unknown ahead of time but recognizable when one sees it.